Looped Fabric

Knitting the slipped crochet stitch

This post is an updated replacement for an earlier one titled Scottish and shepherd’s knitting revisited that I took offline before preparing an article on the underlying topic for publication. New questions about shepherd’s knitting and its relationship to crochet have arisen in the interim and a book that was central to the initial post sheds quite a bit of light on them. It was published in Dublin in 1835, with the title page:

Executed by the Pupils of

The instructions are cross-referenced to a separate section with labeled space for affixing corresponding specimens, the number and design of which varies in surviving copies. The text also describes how to record the names of the students in each annual class and the dates of their participation in the separate facets of tuition. It therefore seems likely that individual copies of the book were seeded with specimens executed by the pupils of the National Model Female School prior to distribution, and additional specimens were then added locally.

I’ve examined the copy held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. It includes two embroidered samplers dated 1847, one also with the names of its maker and the National Model Female School. Regardless of where the other specimens in it were prepared, it can safely be assumed that they were not made prior to that year. The chapter on knitting includes a section on “Scotch knitting.” The corresponding space in the specimen section is headed “Night-Cap” with a well-executed miniature attached.

Scotch Knitting.
[See Specimen, No. 29.]

“1. Take one end of the thread in the left hand, and with the right place another part of the thread over it in the form of a loop.
2. Draw the thread through this loop, and make as many of them as you require stitches; they should be drawn pretty closely, and appear like chain-stitch; knit the first and last loops together to join them.
3. This sort of knitting is done with one needle only, which has a hook on the end, and there never should be more than one stitch on the needle at a time.
4. Pass the needle through a stitch on the side which is next you; turn the thread over the hook, and draw it through the loop.
5. Make another stitch, and draw it through in like manner; you will then have a second loop upon the needle, which must be drawn through the first one, so as to have one only on the needle, and so with every remaining loop round and round.
6. To widen, knit two stitches in one loop. To narrow, take two stitches on the needle and knit them as one. An alteration is made in the pattern of the knitting by passing the needle into the loop on the side farthest from you, and this change may be used to finish off the edges of any article, or to diversify the general appearance.

This knitting is very generally used for infants’ woollen or cotton shoes. Suspenders may also be knitted in this way, and rendered more elastic, by knitting one stitch and slipping the next upon the needle, without knitting, casting the thread over it to the next stitch. The next row this stitch and its loop should be knitted together, and the stitches which were knitted before should be slipped, and a loop passed over them.”

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The unnumbered paragraph following the six instructions was taken from a two-year earlier publication (discussed here) that says nothing more about the craft. There is no mention of crochet anywhere in either text but accounts of its history in the early Victorian fancywork literature jibe perfectly with the instructions from 1835. The later descriptions frequently note a transition to crochet from shepherd’s knitting that took place in the second half of the 1830s. One such statement is found in the 1844 edition of My Crochet Sampler by Frances Lambert.

Crochet — a species of knitting originally practised by the peasants in Scotland, with a small hooked needle called a shepherd’s hook — has within the last seven years, aided by taste and fashion, obtained the preference over all other ornamental work of a similar nature.

The edition of Simple Directions from 1853 (and probably the one from 1846) catches up with intervening developments but retains the original text, changed only by an expansion of its heading to “SCOTCH OR SHEPHERD’S KNITTING,” reducing the heading of the corresponding specimen page to “KNITTING,” and meaningfully altering a few mentions of “loop” to “stitch.” It then appends several paragraphs set in smaller type that describe various crochet stitches in wording borrowed from texts such as Lambert’s. The added section follows immediately after the description of shepherd’s knitting and is introduced with:

NOTE.—The preceding may be called the elementary stitch, known as “Crochet Stitch,” and which in the exercise of taste and ingenuity has been latterly applied with much success to the production of almost every variety of article, whether useful or ornamental… Numberless books are now in use, giving directions and scales for their special application…

The hyperlinked copy of the 1853 edition does not include any specimens. However, its date together with the 1847 nightcap, show that shepherd’s knitting was alive and well in the middle of the century. The surface appearance of the nightcap is also fully consistent with other extant shepherd’s knitting.

The instructions are clear about the distinction between inserting the needle into a preexisting loop from below or above, now respectively termed “front loop only” (FLO) and “back loop only” (BLO), with both appearing in the specimen as described in the text. In the context of crochet it would be assumed that the instruction to “turn the thread over the hook” designates the now customary wrapping of the thread from behind the hook and over its top toward the front — “yarn over” (YO). However, the stitches in the nightcap have the form made with the yarn under the hook (YU). This was used preferentially in earlier instructions for shepherd’s knitting and was already the standard for ordinary knitting in the British Isles. Since the 1835 text otherwise applies the same terminology to both types of knitting, a uniform wrap direction may be indicated.

Another significant detail is the absence of even a hint of the tapered flat hook normally associated with shepherd’s knitting. Again in light of the consistent terminology, the specification of “a needle which has a hook on the end” seems unlikely to designate anything other than an ordinary hook-tipped knitting needle. Both tools are tractable for shepherd’s knitting but a tapered hook offsets an inherent tendency of the described stitch to be quite tight, perhaps explaining the stretchier form of the fabric. The instructions in the first edition being exclusively for Scotch knitting may additionally explain the label Tricot éccosais as an alternate designation for Tunisian crochet — a variety of the craft that is intrinsically reliant on a hook-tipped knitting needle.

The elastic stitch pattern doesn’t appear in any of the instructions for crochet that were published in Dutch, French, and German during the 1820s. This pattern also suggests that shepherd’s knitting did not remain static as described in the late 18th century and contributed more to Victorian crochet than is normally believed. The elasticity is effected by halving the number of stitches knitted directly into the corresponding stitches in the preceding round, bridging every second one by “slipping” a stitch without knitting it.

This adds nuance to the discussion of why shepherd’s knitting was identified by the crocheted “slip stitch” with increasing frequency beginning in the 1850s. A similar consideration applies to what is now termed the foundation chain. This is not called a chain in the 1835 instructions, which do nothing more than compare the appearance of the structure to an embroidered chain stitch, and make no reference at all to a single chain.

The directive for “knitting one stitch and slipping the next upon the needle, without knitting” can therefore be read as designating a complete stitch followed by a chain, with no apparent alternative. The stitch is knitted by pulling a loop through both the fabric and the loop that is already on the hook. A slipped stitch is not knitted directly into the fabric, with the new loop only being pulled through the one already on the hook. This provides a plausible derivation of “slip stitch crochet” as a designation for fabric that can be defined solely by these two structures. Simple Directions describes such fabric procedurally in terms of knitting, for which shepherd’s knitting remains an appropriate designation — especially since it preserves the historical and conceptual distinctions between it and crochet.

The instructions for the elastic variant position the stitches above the chains, and the chains above the stitches. It is not clear how the directive “this stitch and its loop should be knitted together” is to be understood. An open mesh with minimal vertical separation is produced by inserting the hook into the chain. If inserted into the space under the chain, the result is a shepherd’s-knitted version of one of the basic stitch patterns in the current crochet repertoire. This is normally made in double crochet (UK) and variously termed granite, linen, moss, or seed stitch.

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